It was going to be either Aaron Rodgers or Jay Cutler in the Super Bowl. Only one quarterback would be packing for Arlington; the other would be heading off to the suburb where 30 of 32 NFL teams currently reside: Waiting Until Next Year.
But Rodgers and Cutler already have shared the same path this season, the one lined with Facebook posts and scathing Tweets, none of which had more than a passing (no pun intended) kinship with the truth.
Cutler was eviscerated for leaving the NFC Championship game with what appeared to be a phantom injury. At least, that’s the way it looked to the millions of us who just couldn’t quite make it down to the Bears’ sideline to chat with any of their medical personnel. And as someone in his third decade of working the sidelines for the UK football radio network, I can tell you – you’re much better off getting information from a trainer or team doctor than you are from the guy sitting next to you in the living room, his mouth half-full of guacamole.
Cutler sat out the crucial stage of Chicago’s loss to the Packers and became an instant target, both of fans and NFL players, past and present. Just a couple of weeks ago, Rodgers found out (the hard way) what it’s like to wear that same kind of bullseye.
As the Packers were walking through the airport, about to board a plane for their playoff game in Atlanta, Rodgers allegedly snubbed a Packers’ fan, Jan Cavanaugh. A cancer survivor who often sees the team off on their road trips, Cavanaugh was hoping to snag an autograph. Rodgers was captured on cell-phone video, brushing past her, seemingly ignoring her plea.
Of course, the video (and story) went viral in minutes. Rodgers became a jerk and a target, simultaneously. “Big Shot Quarterback Big-Times Cancer Survivor…”
Bloggers and Tweeters pounced immediately. The Green Bay quarterback was vilified, much the way Cutler was even before the NFC title game had concluded. Rodgers was labeled a heartless ass; Cutler, much worse: a quitter.
And now, as has become almost a custom in this Age of the Instant Take, we find out that what we thought we saw wasn’t exactly what we saw.
Rodgers, as it turned out, didn’t see Cavanaugh. Both he and the woman later explained that they knew each other; he had signed paraphernalia for her before. Rodgers was wearing his earbuds, plugged into his iPod, phone or whatever, oblivious to sound, lost in thought as he strode through the terminal. Even Cavanaugh recognized as much. She never complained, and later defended the Packers quarterback. It was the critics who couldn’t wait to tee off on line as they rushed to their conclusions.
Cutler’s situation is a bit trickier, but still similar. The former Vanderbilt Commodore seemed almost bored as he stood on the sideline, watching Todd Collins light a match to what was left of the rest of his career. Cutler did look joyful when third-string QB Caleb Hanie rallied the Bears to within a touchdown of the Pack.
But by then, the Tweets and posts had begun. It was evident Cutler had suffered a knee injury. Fox TV producers repeatedly showed video of the Bears’ medical staff, attending to his knee, as well as Cutler riding a stationary bicycle. The Fox sideline reporter, Chris Myers, could do little but report what they told him, and what we already knew – that Cutler had suffered a knee injury to his left knee. Nobody would know until Monday how serious it was.
But that didn’t stop the critics from attacking him. The same quarterback who had spent the first part of the season battered by sack specialists (remember how the Giants dumped him 10 times?) without complaining, who got smacked in the lips more than once by the Packer defensive linemen as he delivered passes, was being called a sissy, and worse.
To his credit, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher following the game immediately took up for Cutler, as did several other teammates. "Jay was hurt," Urlacher said. "I don't question his toughness. He's tough as hell. He's one of the toughest guys on our football team. He doesn't bitch. He doesn't complain when he gets hit. He goes out there and plays his ass off every Sunday. He practices every single day. So, no, we don't question his toughness." Even head coach Lovie Smith said Cutler lobbied to return to the game, but Smith refused his request.
The MRI results on Monday confirmed what some had speculated – that Cutler had suffered a sprained ligament (MCL), which made it impossible for him to set up and follow through on his throws. Internal swelling and bleeding had begun the moment he was injured.
No matter. The posts are out there, the bloggers have spoken and the Tweets are still ringing in our ears - and before our eyes, thanks to ESPN, which created a “crawl” so we could read them on the bottom of the screen, over and over, throughout the countless replays of Sportscenter.
It should be noted that while Cutler was going through the interview process prior to the 2007 NFL draft, some teams questioned not his physical ability or mental prowess, but his desire. At least one front-office type wondered, Just how much does this guy really want to play football?
You would have thought he had answered that question earlier this year, by absorbing all that punishment in the early stages of the Bears’ new offense, before coordinator Mike Martz realized his line couldn’t protect his quarterback. That’s when Chicago began to run the ball, and rack up victories. Cutler led his team to a divisional title that precious few pundits predicted, and then to the conference championship game, one step from the Super Bowl.
But, like Aaron Rodgers, he found out the hard way that anybody with a keyboard and internet access gets a better shot at him than a defensive tackle. At least on the field, there’s an offensive lineman attempting to protect him. Internet wags “come clean,” and not off the edges – right up the middle. The only things between them and their targets are decency and common sense.
Admit it – haven’t you, at least once, fired off an angry e-mail or text you wish you could have retrieved, the moment you hit the “send” key? Over here – guilty.
And the Packer fan in me took great delight in seeing Cutler on the sideline. I assumed it would grease the skids for my guys to get to the Super Bowl, especially when Collins was out there, firing one-hoppers all over Soldier Field. I must say, Hanie made me nervous, but it’s all good now – for me, and Packer Nation.
It might never be again for Jay Cutler. And that’s not fair. I know he makes millions, and pro athletes are always targets for criticism. It comes with the playbook. But that same criticism is much more valid when accompanied by facts. That’s why a handful of columnists and bloggers offered apologies to Rodgers, once all the info surfaced about the airport incident. And now we know just how badly Cutler’s knee was damaged.
Even armed with fresh knowledge of Cutler’s injury, NFL analysts STILL are debating Cutler’s desire. Of course, I’ve yet to hear an ex-quarterback weigh in on just how easy it is to stand tall in the pocket on a leg you can’t plant.
And I know this: We won’t see any apologies crawling along the bottom of ESPN’s TV screen any time soon.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)